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Can Diet Heal Chronic Pain?

Nina Ghamrawi, MS, RD, CDE
November 30, 2022
February 3, 2023
5

Healthy food choices, preparing food at home, and eating with friends and family in a relaxed environment all help ease digestion and pain. When our brain and body are stressed, we do not digest food very well, even with a healthy diet. This can cause diarrhea or constipation and add to pain. Good nutrition, restful sleep, regular activity, and a good social life can all help.

Managing Pain by Focusing on the Whole You

Pain is not just about our injury, or the physical issue affecting our body. Pain is drastically magnified by stress levels, loneliness, poor diet, low activity levels, and poor gut health. According to this article, a “whole person” approach is vital for the management of chronic pain.

Chronic pain on an individual involves more than just doctor appointments and medications. It acknowledges the need for prescribing social interaction and meaningful engagement (known as “social prescribing”). This study also looks at higher-risk lifestyles that can worsen chronic pain, including “sedentary activity, unhealthy diet, anxiety and depression, smoking, lack of sunshine, disrupted sleep, unemployment, living in adverse socioeconomic circumstances and previous history of abuse or violence”.

The brain and the gut are hardwired by a special nerve called the vagus nerve. Information about what foods you eat and what happens in the gut travels up to the brain through this nerve. What is going on in the brain, therefore, also travels back to the gut. But this nerve is more special than that.

The vagus nerve connects our bodies into a whole, connected system.

The vagus nerve also connects all other organs of digestion and reproduction, as well as the thyroid, heart, and lungs. So remember this nerve. We will talk about it more later.

What Pain And Stress Does To The Gut

When the body experiences pain or stress, blood flows away from all those digestive organs to place more energy in the muscles, to prepare for what is called the “flight or fight response”.  Stress, in essence, forces the body to put less effort into digesting food. While this used to be a protective effect of the body during hunting and gathering times,

… the daily stressors in our thoughts or in our lives -  like driving, dealing with family, or handling work issues - will initiate this response system on a more regular basis, repetitively reducing our brain’s focus on our digestion, making our muscles tense and jittery.

As a result, our gut may not work properly, and may not absorb the appropriate nutrients that it needs.

Pain, especially chronic pain, has the same effect that stress has on the gut. As a result, people suffering from either chronic pain or chronic stress will often experience bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux disease. What is worse is that over time, as your brain becomes wired for pain, your ability to digest food is dampened by your gut lining, and your gut lining weakens.

But remember that there’s hope! The cells in your gut live for only around 3 days, and are constantly renewing and repairing the damage caused by stressors, pain, and unhealthy foods. In order to help the gut do this, give yourself a periodic break from life stressors and processed foods.

If you experience bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, or acid reflux disease on a regular basis, and you suffer with chronic pain, or take anti-inflammatory medications for pain, like ibuprofen, aspirin, or narcotics, then here are some common lifestyle and diet factors to keep an eye on.

What Things Harm Digestion?

Processed Beverages and Foods:

  • Energy drinks, sugary coffees, and sodas - contain sugar and artificial sweeteners, which feed bad bacteria in the gut.
  • Not enough water - can make us dehydrated with increased headaches, fatigue and irritability.
  • Alcohol - disrupts sleep, making us more vulnerable to feeling stress, which then increases issues with digestion, weight, and pain.
  • Highly processed foods - these food chemicals stifle the body’s ability to feed healthy gut bacteria, weakening the body’s defenses, and reducing calming and energizing hormones, increasing the risk for requiring anti-depressants.

Certain Medications:

  • Ibuprofen aspirin, naproxen - damage the gut lining, increasing the effects of bacterial and food toxins in the gut, leading to ulcers. Their damage to the got leads to more vulnerability, and difficulty healing
  • Narcotics like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and others - affect intestinal motility, leading to constipation. When the bowels don't move, this leads to backup of toxins in the gut, and damage to gut bacteria.

What lifestyle factors improve your digestion?

According to this article published in 2016, eating pattern and lifestyle play an important role in the development and management of chronic pain. Some basic tenets to keep in mind to help reduce the effects of stress and pain on the gut include:

  • Drink plenty of water - staying hydrated makes everything function better.
  • Eating while sitting, with others, not rushed - primes your brain to focus on digestion.
  • Eating more nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and whole grains feeds healthy gut bacteria - with more nutrients and boosts up your body’s defenses.
  • Fermented foods: miso, tempeh, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha - contain healthy bacteria pass through digestive system like fertilizer, helping you to regulate your immune system and bowel movements.
  • Cooking food at home - to help you control the amount  vegetables, and also quality of meals with fewer preservatives, saturated fats, sodium, salt, and sugar.

Takeaways

Improving lifestyle, reducing stress and weight can have an amazing effect on pain reduction. More specifically, healthy gut microbes, healthy weight, and anti-inflammatory diets and polyphenols (powerful antioxidant found in many of the foods in the Mediterranean diet) are crucial in helping to reduce chronic pain. Talk to your doctor about pain management and appropriate physical therapy techniques to stay active if recommended. Also talk to your Dietitian in an advanced Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT) consult about how you can adapt your lifestyle and diet to reduce chronic pain. If you are interested in learning more, take a look at our other article about the anti-inflammatory diet.